THE BORDER BALLADS – INTRODUCTION

Posted: November 9, 2014 in Chat
Tags: , , ,

Reivers_raid_on_Gilnockie_Tower

It happened again recently. In the run-up to the Scottish Independence debacle, the British journalist and broadcaster Andrew Marr ran a series of tv profiles of Scottish writers. He did one on Hugh MacDiarmid.
Hugh MacDiarmid, he said, was born in Langholm just eight miles over the border into Scotland. Not his exact words, but near enough. I had read this once before from some older English hack. Then it could be dismissed out of hand. But Andrew Marr? Glasgow born of Scots parents, Scots educated…. Not so easily dismissable.

Langholm, Hugh MacDiarmid’s (Christopher Murray Grieve) birthplace, is situated slap-bang (as we say here) in the middle of the Scottish Borders. In the thirteenth century Langholm was also on the edge of what was well known as The Debatable Lands. This was the area from Gretna eastwards, and bordered by the Eskdale and Liddesdale rivers. It was debateable because when the border was set, after William Wallace, Robert the Bruce, the inhabitants declared no allegiance to England nor to Scotland. It became part of Reiver country. It became part setting for the Border Ballads.

And Andrew Marr dismissed/ignored/side-stepped this rich cultural sense of place. This was what MacDiarmid/Grieve grew from and amidst; his venturing out into world-awareness took on epic proportions for him.  For MacDiarmid was no armchair adventurer, he nailed his colours to the mast: his commitments were active and deep.

There is no longer a Debatable Land, but there are The Borders. Anyone on the Welsh Marches can testify that borderlands are their own place, they are different; their inhabitants are psychologically and psychically rent, divided against themselves, irascible and separatist. They count and recount their lamented dead; and yet applaud the killing of enemies. Feuds can and do last for generations, centuries.

All established borderlands worldwide, I would venture, share some of these qualities. Borderlands are where the excluded and marginalised sought refuge. In historical terms they are ‘buffer zones’, they take the pressures and strain of discord between the nations they border.

The Scottish Borders was a region more than usually beset and raided over a long period by English incursions into Scotland, and Scottish retaliations on collaboration, whether voluntary or enforced. The Border people in consequence were vulnerable, and generally poor. And, some may say, in consequence irascible, quick of temper, wary, cynical. All these are the reverse expressions of a deeply felt sense of the sacredness of life; one that had been despoiled for them too often to sit easily any more.
Livestock was their only asset, and that disposable by nature. The families that had been able to root over time produced the fortified farm buildings and minor manor houses that became Pele towers: austere buildings with thick outside walls, and what windows there were high up and small.

The Scottish Borders are agreed to be contained between Carlisle to Dumfries in the West, across to Berwick and Alnwick in the East. The terrain is wild, though: think in three dimensions and you have a massive increase of territory. From the huge declivity of the Devil’s Beef Tub,

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to the Tweed valley, to the Ettrick vale; and you have wild uplands as well as now huge forested/plantation swathes. It is also noticeable that this Border covers territory on both sides of the actual accepted Scottish border.

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The time-scale of the Border Ballads is large also. James V of Scotland led a great taming of the Borders – it was here that Johnnie Armstrong, and Adam Scott of Tushielaw, fell to his wiles. And that was in 1529. We have ballads commemorating events from the early 13th to late sixteenth centuries.

James Reed in his Introduction to the excellent Carcanet edition of BORDER BALLADS: A Selection (1991) emphasises the point about the Ballads:’… in all this there is a bond of common knowledge, common experience, common language.’ The Ballads, he asserts, need to be understood as being part of the territory of the Borders, of the time of their composition/what they celebrate, and of the people. Kinship, the complexities of family relationships, and of the bonds between families, weigh more heavily with the Borders than nationality: ‘… the people, knowing themselves as Borderers first, Scots or English second, and owing their first allegiance to kin and laird rather than to Edinburgh or London’.
There are instances – The Death of Parcy Reed in particular – where cross-Border family alliances are shown eg between Scots’ Crosier family, English Hall family, and both against the English Reed family.
A number of the Ballads are English compositions against their Scots neighbours eg The Fray of Support.

One priceless source of information on the Ballads is the 2 volume set of Sir Walter Scott’s MINSTRELSY OF THE SCOTTISH BORDER. Both volumes are freely available on Kindle. These volumes provide detailed background to each Ballad, family name and territory.

The Scottish Borders were divided into three ‘marches’, each under charge of an appointed warden or sherriff. One constant note amongst their correspondence was the lack of man-power and support to help deal with recalcitrant clan families throughout this period. In consequence the Reivers were able to raid cattle, sheep, burn farms, over a wide area with little prevention or detection. This being such a close community, though, all knew who did what. But none could tell. There were occasions Wardens took their cut of the proceeds – lack of official support and remuneration for a near-impossible job took their toll on the usually titled regional Wardens.

The East and Middle Marches produced most of the Ballads; the Western March was easier to patrol.
Collections of Border Ballads usually divide into Eastern, Middle and Supernatural ballads. These last have a very distinctive flavour, usually grounded in a particular place eg Carter Bar, the Eildon Hills etc.

One noticeable feature of the Ballads as a whole is the preponderance of ‘honour killings’. Note that term.
These are usually father of erring daughter who has fallen for the young son of a rival family (The Douglas Tragedy). Very Romeo and Juliet. And the consequencies just as tragic. Sometimes the honour debt is righted by the brothers of the straying sister ( The Dowie Dens of Yarrow), or a love rival (The Twa Corbies).
What raised these domestic tragedies above the squalor of their reality was the political dimension they reflected: their concept of honour was only possible because there was little or no recourse to law or legal apparatus. The families and clans (although they would have eschewed the Highlander’s concept and definition of Clan) were isolated and dependent on close bonds for support against rivals who sought their goods and/or territory. These bonds took the form of family connections and agreements, made through intermarriage. A bond-family however could not not respond to the stronger family’s call to arms, whether to raid or despoil. Family protection had its own gestalt; but what if Johnnie Armstrong, head-strong as he was, put out a call for a raid on another struggling farm holding? Backsliders were not tolerated.

The period for Reiving and cattle raids was the dark nights after Michaelmas, from October onwards. Michaelmas marked the end of the court sessions for the Winter, and so what was considered a ‘free time’.
Some claim the Reiving period to have been between Lammas (August) and Candlemas (February) although that does seem to be a little too fortuitously based on pagan religious periods.

A contemporary reminder/memory of those activities is to be found in the Common Ridings of a number of Border towns.

BB3_wikiHere the town gathers and ceremonialises its town identity. The young men with their regional flag ride the town’s boundaries. They return at a gallop; mishaps are many,

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but the young men, and the chosen Callant, must return to the Lass intact to ensure the safety of the town and identity. The best and most experienced riders form the vanguard.
The ‘beating of the bounds’ ie the town bounds/borders, was once a common practice in England also.

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Comments
  1. viennafamous says:

    Really interesting stuff. I love the idea of ‘Debatable Lands’ – they sound like something right out of Jonathan Swift!

  2. Yes I get you, but… it’s debateable.

  3. Candia says:

    Thanks for following my posts.
    In the summer I got carried away writing about a retired picture dealer in The Borders who was restoring a pele tower. I got a bit carried away with the plot for a while. It might amuse you…

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